The recent decision of the British Columbia Supreme Court in D2 Contracting Ltd. v. Bank of Nova Scotia provides useful guidance for fidelity claims and subrogation professionals on dealing with cheque fraud losses arising from forged drawer signatures. The Court's decision demonstrates the necessity of ensuring that the insured's bank has been notified of suspected fraud or irregularities immediately upon such issues being discovered.
D2 Contracting Ltd ("D2") was a contractor operating on Vancouver Island. D2 had two principals, Copeman and Cooper. In January 2006, D2 opened an account with the Bank of Nova Scotia ("BNS") and agreed to BNS's form of operation of account agreement ("OAA"). The signature card provided that both of Copeman and Cooper had to sign any cheque drawn by D2 on the BNS account.
Commencing in 2006, Copeman wrote 594 cheques totalling almost $1.3 million. On each of these cheques, Copeman forged Cooper's signature as second signatory. Cooper had learned of Copeman's forging of his signature as early as August 2006, when Cooper received an ordinary-course cheque issued by D2 representing his salary, but noticed that Copeman had signed Cooper's name along with his own. Cooper did not raise the issue with BNS at the time.
In June 2007, Cooper reminded Copeman that Copeman should not be signing Cooper's name to D2 cheques, even on cheques for legitimate D2 expenses. Notwithstanding this admonition, Copeman continued to do so. Cooper later admitted that he had been aware that Copeman had forged his signature on at least six cheques by mid-2008, and at least 10 cheques by February 2009. Matters came to a head in March 2009, when a cheque payable to Cooper representing his monthly salary was returned NSF by BNS. In April 2009, Cooper attended a BNS branch and reported the ongoing irregularities in the account.
D2's Claim and BNS's Contractual Defence
D2 commenced an action against BNS for recovery of the loss caused by Copeman's fraud. Under subsection 48(1) of Canada's Bills of Exchange Act (BEA), a drawee bank will be liable to its customer where the bank pays a cheque that contains a forgery of the customer's signature.
However, the statutory liability created by section 48 can be avoided by contractual verification provisions, and banks typically include provisions in OAAs which seek to accomplish exactly that. The OAA in issue here contained a verification provision which obligated D2 to review each statement and notify BNS within 30 days of any errors or omissions. D2's failure to advise BNS within that time period was deemed by the OAA to constitute an acknowledgement of the accuracy of the account statement.
BNS brought a summary trial application under B.C. rule 9-7, asserting that the verification obligation, and Cooper's failure to advise BNS of any problems between 2006 and 2009, represented a complete defence to D2's claim.
The Court accepted BNS's contention in respect of all loss preceding the 30 days immediately before Cooper attended the BNS branch in April 2009. The Court accepted that the verification provision created a positive obligation on D2 to review each statement and to report any discrepancies within 30 days. Failure to do so constituted an acknowledgement of the accuracy of the contents of the statement. As such, the verification provision provided a complete contractual defence to BNS in respect of pre-March 2009 losses.
BNS's Non-contractual Defence: section 48 of the BEA
BNS also asserted a non-contractual defence, asserting that subsection 48(1) of the BEA, as interpreted and applied in the Supreme Court of Canada's 1987 CP Hotels decision, created a positive obligation on Cooper to promptly notify BNS about forgeries of which he had actual knowledge. BNS contended that Cooper's failure to do so precluded D2 from advancing any claim, even in the absence of the OAA.
The Court reviewed the CP Hotels decision and observed that the Supreme Court had recognized two existing duties of a bank customer: the duty to "use reasonable care to draw his cheques in such a manner as not to facilitate forgery or material alteration of them"; and the duty, "upon learning of forgery, to give the bank prompt notification of it". The Supreme Court had also affirmed that, even in the absence of a contractual verification obligation, a customer has a duty, upon learning of a forgery, to give the bank prompt notification of that forgery.
The Court accepted BNS's submission on this point as well, holding that:
Contrary to D2's submission, the common law duty articulated in CP Hotels to report forgeries known to the customer does not arise as an implied term of a contract between the bank and its customers. The Court clearly articulated that such a duty arose in the absence of any legally binding verification agreement. ...
In short, Mr. Cooper's actual knowledge of Mr. Copeman's forgeries and his flagrant failure to provide prompt notice to [BNS] of those forgeries are fatal to D2's claim.
In all the circumstances, I conclude that D2 is precluded from setting up the forgery or want of authority against [BNS]. [emphasis added]
As a result, the Court dismissed D2's claim in respect of all cheques predating the 30-day window prior to Cooper's attendance in April 2009.
Implications for Fidelity Insurers
D2 Contracting provides valuable guidance to fidelity claims and subrogation professionals as to potential defences available to banks on forged drawer signature claims. From a fidelity perspective, the lessons of D2 Contracting are:
- in any claim arising from allegedly-forged drawer signatures, ensure that the insured has put its bank on notice of the potential forgeries, even if the total number of cheques, or the extent of the potential fraud, has not yet been ascertained;
- obtain and review a copy of the insured's OAA with its bank as soon as possible (this is essential in any cheque fraud claim);
- obtain appropriate guidance with respect to the effectiveness of any potential contractual defences in the OAA; and,
- obtain appropriate guidance with respect to the time limitations created by the BEA and the Automated Clearing Settlement System (ACSS) Rules and Standards promulgated by the Canadian Payments Association.
In a situation in which the defaulter has dissipated stolen funds, the insured's bank may represent the only realistic avenue of recovery. Taking these steps can preserve some or all of an insured's (and, ultimately, the fidelity insurer's) claim against the insured's bank to the maximum extent possible.
D2 Contracting Ltd. v. Bank of Nova Scotia, 2015 BCSC 1634.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.